Brazil: No Longer the "Free Culture" Nation

After the election of President Lula in Brazil in 2002 and his appointment of musician Gilberto Gil as his Minister of Culture, Brazil became renowned for its courageous leadership in promoting the use of free software, Creative Commons licenses, citizen participation in policymaking, community use of digital technologies, and remix culture.  Now all that is about to change.

With the election of Mrs. Dilma Rousseff as Brazil’s new president in November, Brazil is apparently turning its back on eight years of exemplary progress.  As Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation reports, “The evidence starts coming in that Ms. Ana de Hollanda [the incoming Minister of Culture] is intent on restoring the primacy of IP monopolies in the purest neoliberal fashion.  However, public pressure, including from the global free culture movement, could still make a difference at this early stage of reset. Please spread the word via twitter’s hashtag #reformaLDA.”

Informed speculation has it that the appointment of Hollanda could mean a retreat from the copyright legislation of the previous administration, a retreat from oversight of the collecting societies that that legislation would have provided, and the end of a proposal to legalize noncommercial file-sharing.  Already the Ministry of Culture has removed the Creative Commons license from its website.  This is a disappointing, unexpected turn of events, especially since the new President, Mrs. Rousseff, was President Lula’s former chief of staff. 

It’s worth reviewing how and why Brazil became such a global leader in promoting free culture in its mant guises.  Jose Murilo, the former minister for digital culture in Brazil, names the key reasons:

  • a minister of culture like Gilberto Gil, who created such thing as the Tropicalia movement in the 60s, and was seconded by his own vice, Juca Ferreira, resulting in 8 years (2002-2010) of a continued program happening at a strategic moment for technology and culture.
  • advanced free software policies implemented since 2002 by the Brazilian government as a whole, creating a better IT environment for understanding the fabrics of the internet.
  • a public program (Pontos de Cultura / Cultural Hotspots) to empower groups of artists to use digital technologies and free software to digitize their creativity, using alternative licenses (Creative Commons, Copyleft) to publish their content online, which resulted in the emergence of new and innovative cultural networks.
  • a specific 'locus' in a public institution -- the ministry's digital culture department -- ready to absorb and reprocess the feedback from those experiments of radical openness on public policies, through the intensive use of interactive interfaces and collaborative platforms that promote open conversations.

Murilo adds, “I think it is important to highlight that there was a cultural narrative underlying the whole movement, one that Gil was able to adapt to the 21st century. For now I will go with a quote on the Tropicalist perspective from "Gilberto Gil: the open minister":

"The tropicalist visionary perspective is a legacy of the late 1960s when Gilberto Gil and his group were discovering a new global audience and experimenting with all kinds of cultural fusions. This perspective and the work that gave it life was inspired by a liberating, mind-opening and pioneering recognition: that the cosmopolitan electric-guitar beats from abroad and the rhythms of regional groups in the hinterlands of the Brazilian northeast were resonating to the same pulses of modernity. The urge to communicate and mix across cultures was the key to what came to be known as tropicalism. 

"In the 2000s, Gil's focus on the hacker ethics of openness for the digital culture was instrumental in highlighting a comparable mixing of cultures, peers, rhythms, codes and complexities. In his own way, he managed - four decades on, and in a transformed cultural, musical, media, political and technological environment - to creatively introduce new conceptual layers and nuances to his public discourse. The result was that he opened new ground for political debate over a range of contemporary issues: among them mass culture, the market, technology, traditional-modern tensions, and intellectual-property regulation."

The Brazilian government did a lot to promote the use of free software within government agencies and other public bodies.  But, says Murilo, it did not undertake “much direct investment on open and distributed development communities or projects. We could say that this was the missing piece for the Brazilian government’s free software strategy.”  (More on the “Brazilian public software” experiment here:  Brazilian Public Software: beyond Sharing

It’s important for those of us in the free culture world to register our profound disappointment with Brazil’s apparent move toward the copyright-maximalist agenda.  It tarnishes Brazil’s well-earned reputation as a progressive leader for the digital commons.